The Charity Commission has been forced to defend its own investigations after Oxfam’s former head of safeguarding claimed she told the watchdog women were being coerced into sex for aid several years ago.
Helen Evans said she was “extremely concerned” by the response to concerns she raised while heading the charity’s global efforts to protect staff and beneficiaries from 2012 to 2015.
While appealing for more resources from management to deal with a rising number of allegations, Ms Evans told how in a single day she was told of a woman being coerced into sex in exchange for aid, another aid worker having sex with a beneficiary and a member of staff being struck off for abuse.
“I went in 2015 to the Charity Commission, I went back again in 2017. Everything I’m saying today, the Charity Commission knew, so why is the Government saying this is a surprise?”
Ms Evans had emailed Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, warning that data being gathered from staff “increasingly points to a culture of sexual abuse within some Oxfam officers” but a face-to-face meeting was cancelled in 2014.
While “repeatedly” asking for increased resources the following year, she said three allegations were made in a single day: “There was one of a woman being coerced to have sex in a humanitarian response by another aid worker, another case where a woman had been coerced in exchange for aid and another one where it had come to our attention where a member of staff had been struck off for sexual abuse and hadn’t disclosed that, and we were then concerned about what he might be doing.”
In an email to her superiors, she asked: “If we don’t have resource to safeguard those we are meant to help from harm caused by our own representatives, then how can we justify the work we do?”
A spokesperson for the Charity Commission said it took Ms Evans’ concerns “very seriously” and was told by Oxfam that its safeguarding processes were improving and developing.
Following a second meeting last year, the Charity Commission opened an ongoing regulatory compliance case and issued a formal action plan.
The watchdog launched a new statutory inquiry into Oxfam last night, saying it may not have “fully and frankly disclosed material details” about allegations of staff using prostitutes in Haiti in 2011.
The Commission said it also had concerns about its handling of subsequent incidents and the impact on public trust and confidence.
Deputy chief executive David Holdsworth said: “Charities and dedicated, hard-working aid workers undertake vital, lifesaving work in some of the most difficult circumstances across the world.
“However, the issues revealed in recent days are shocking and unacceptable. It is important that we take this urgent step to ensure that these matters can be dealt with fully and robustly.”
Mr Goldring apologised for “not acting fast enough” but said Oxfam appointed a retired police officer to oversee safeguarding shortly after she left her post, increased resources and expanded criminal record checks in shops.
A spokesperson for the charity said more staff were being recruited to its safeguarding team and specialist training had been rolled out both in shops and overseas.
If the Government doesn’t cut all funding to Oxfam nothing will change
Following crisis talks with Oxfam on Monday, the International Development Secretary said she would not move “hastily” in deciding whether to withdraw Government funding from the charity, which totalled £31.7m in 2016/17.
Penny Mordaunt told BBC News: “I know people will be worried about the charity, they’ll be worried about the money, but we need to be guided by what the Charity Commission are doing and also I have made it very clear to Oxfam what we expect to see from them.
The former Foreign Secretary Lord Hague is among those warning against cutting the foreign aid budget in the wake of the scandal.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said there was an ”overwhelming strategic, as well as moral, imperative to deliver aid to the world’s poorest people“, adding: “A reduction in aid would be a strategic blunder, ultimately damaging our own national interest and our ability to deal with one of the biggest problems heading our way.”
Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, resigned during yesterday’s discussions, saying she took “full responsibility” for the alleged use of prostitutes by senior staff in Haiti and Chad.
But aid workers told The Independent sexual misconduct against both locals and staff remained “widespread” in humanitarian agencies and called for wholesale reforms.
They described hearing of similar behaviour across Africa and Asia, including senior male managers paying local women as prostitutes or meeting in sex bars, amid a “culture of impunity”.
A British former UN employee who has worked for several agencies in the Middle East said sexual misconduct was “definitely widespread”.
“There are not enough checks and balances within the humanitarian sector and you hear stories of people who were known for sexual misconduct and abuse still working 20 years later,” she added.
Although the publicity around Oxfam could improve practices, she was concerned that the threat of donors cutting funding could drive organisations to “bury sexual misconduct instead of doing a proper inquiry”.
The Government has written to all British charities working overseas demanding “absolute assurances” that they are protecting vulnerable people and referring complaints to authorities in the wake of the Oxfam scandal.
The Department for International Development (Dfid) has created a new unit dedicated to reviewing safeguarding in the aid sector and stopping “criminal and predatory individuals” being employed by other charities.
A global register of development workers may be established, as the UK increases work against sexual exploitation with the United Nations and prepares to host a summit on the issue later this month.